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What is Africa to Me?

Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, til slumber comes.

- Countee Cullen, Heritage

[ 9/28/97 | 10/4/97 | 10/13/97| 10/20/97 | 10/30/97| 11/10/97 | 11/21/97 | 12/1/97 | 12/22/97 | 1/15/98 | 2/19/98 | 3/5/98 | 9/9/98 | 9/15/98 | 9/28/98 | 12/4/98 | 12/26/98 | 7/30/99 | 9/24/99 ]

#4 in the Series


Hey everybody

Greetings from Benin - hope that all is going well with my family and friends in the US and scattered to the 4 corners also - and that letters and the such from those 4 corners are coming in, with occasional Western products slipped in.

All is going well here again, noting that I say again. This is that letter that I warned those of you who are squeamish against, although I won't be too graphic. But I did get my first good case of that unidentifiable disease of mysterious origins called "Africa". It was pretty gentle on me, considering - I was out only for 2 1/2 days all told, but it felt a lot longer when I was in the latrine at 24:00, and then 00:30 and then 01:00, and then... all while running a 103 fever. But as the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo said, 'there is no night so long as the dawn never comes", and true to that tradition, I am back and in good spirits again. (However, I don't know how long I will keep being able to provide relevant quotes from African authors - I am going to have to get cracking on some reading if I'm going to keep up.)

That said, I guess I didn't get as much cool stuff done this week - nevertheless I will expound on what I did do. As part of my recovery effort, I repeated my 18 Km each way bike trip to Grand Popo of the Sunday prior. It was easier this time because it was overcast and as such about 10 or 20 degrees cooler out - still hot, though. The waves were also smaller, enough so that one could swim out past the breakers without being killed, which was nice. I still think Grand Popo is the nicest beach I've ever been to.

Then Sunday night for dinner we had pate rouge (the best kind - only the second time I've had it) and chicken, which was also a nice change. I think everyone at home would laugh at me heartily, because I eat fish on average 2 meals a day - ranging from big chunks of ocean-like fish to whole fish the size of sardines, with them on average being about 7-inch carp, served whole. The local folks eat the head as well, but my sense of disgust hasn't yet been overwhelmed by my need for cultural correctness, so as of yet I have not. (Lea, the daughter, who worked in Cotonou at a restaurant - did I tell you about her yet?) - was telling me that they cut the heads off at her restaurant prior to giving them to the customers - kind of an ex-pat place - and they tell the workers to throw them out, the instead the workers pack them up and take them home to have for dinner every night). Anyway, food-wise, those are all the colors of pate, which I told you about already, and there are about 4 or 5 other staples, mostly based on either marioc or ignames (yams, but not like sweet potatoes) or on corn (the grits stuff, but it also comes in sweetened form, or in slightly sour form - they at least act as if this quality is unrelated to the age of the corn in question, but one wonders...)

The ignames and the marioc are both used just like we would use potatoes - you can make them into fries, you can make them into boiled pieces of them, you can mash them (resulting in pate) or you can beat them with a baseball bat sized object for several hours until they become elastic (I haven't had this here yet, but I had it in Ghana last time, and it wasn't overwhelmingly good). You can also grate and cure them, and a few weeks later bake them, and they become gari, which is a kind of course flour which can be eaten on its own, used as oatmeal, fed to the cat, or eaten with beans as a kind of parmesan-cheese-like white powdery topping - actually fairly tasty in its last incarnation.

Of course, with your fish and one of the aforementioned items from the starch group, one must have a sauce. The choice seems to be something the Peace Corps Volunteers call 'snot sauce' with and okra base - I laid down the law against this one on day 1, having been forewarned - or a tomato, onion, and garlic sauce with which about 50% oil is added - but it is still good.

Then for dessert, you eat 1/2 dozen bananas, or a similar quantity of mangos, guavas, papayas, or oranges, depending on the season. Pineapples are expensive ( vis-a-vis other fruits - about 50 Cents for a big pineapple) but right tasty.

Well, that's the definitive word on the food here. I like it, and at least at the family, I eat a whole lot - don't know how that will work out once I get to post and have to feed myself, but we shall see.

In other news, I finished my French training officially - not that I'm all the way there yet, but I am doing really well, and so I am on my own. Instead, I am starting my Gun lessons (pronounced not like the weapon, but like the big Italian guys who would be carrying them). Luckily for me, it is a tonal language (like uh-huh and uh-uh in English), so words that sound exactly alike mean very different things. For example, the word for three is ah-ton, and the word for five is ah-ton. The o in ton goes down for three, and up for five. This distinction took about 2 hours to sink in for me, and I'm still not good at making the difference when I speak.

It's also fun because I don't have a teacher - none of the Peace Corps language teachers speak Gun, so instead, I get a bunch of tasks (find out how to say ...) and then I am sent out into the world. We'll see how that goes.

Anyway, that's the word from here. As I said on page 1, drop me a line, etc, and I'll get back to you personally. In the meantime, I'll keep these coming.


#5 in the Series


Hey everybody,

Well, a lot has happened since my last letter - I guess a natural consequence of spacing the letters out a little more than before - and some of it is actually interesting to tell.

I guess the biggest thing is that I got a lot more of an idea of what I'm going to be doing - I went down to Cotonou for our weekly health classes that we have there (this was first aid and setting priorities in emergency situations - very grim, with stories like "your taxi-moto just collided with another taxi-moto with a woman and 2 kids on it - one kid is unconscious, your driver is bleeding from the head...etc. what do you do first?") Anyway, I had been forewarned to dress a little nicely and shower because my future big boss (not my direct supervisor, but someone further up the chain) wanted to meet with me and take me to lunch. The guy, Chris, turned out to be an American and a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana - this was 1978-1980 - then he went home for a year or two and landed a job with Catholic Relief Services, and since then he has just been bouncing around Africa running projects, and later running whole country programs, which is his story in Benin.

Anyway, I'll tell you about my job first, and then will move into some of Chris's story, because he had some wild things he told me about.

My job is going to be great. I am going to be based out of this very little town - really close to the two biggest cities here, and I will have an office in a local NGO which is affiliated with CRS - these are who I will actually work for. The office is a few kilometers from Djeffa, which is why I will be living there. In fact, though, my projects are going to be scattered all over the Oueme department (one of the 6 departments - kind of like states - of Benin - it is the one in the Southeast). They all have to do with flooding, and how to deal with it, and they will all be in very rural places. However, they are supposed to be varied, and really haven't been designed yet, so I will be trying to see them through from creation to at least the beginning of implementation. Basically they all have to do with mitigating the social, health, and economic consequences of flooding - people get cut off from the markets where they sell their products because the road is washed out, for example, so my project might be to figure out how to build flood walls, or maybe how to store stuff safely until the waters recede, or to get them into a different racket, so they don't depend on inaccessible markets. Or there might be problems with what passes for pure water sources being contaminated with flood waters, and my trying to design a way around this for public health reasons. CRS had some people working on this and have gathered a bunch of background data for me, so after I familiarize myself with the people and places, I might be able to move right into projects. So I'm happy with this - just what I went to FSU to learn about, and just what I came here to do.

I'm going to have a computer in my office, (no word on whether I'll get e-mail also, although I'm still looking into alternative providers so I can stay in closer touch - I'll keep you posted on that), and since my villages will be spread out pretty far, I might get some sort of transportation other than my bike to get around on - public transportation to little villages is kind of nightmarish, involving 4 grown people riding on a single moped with all their stuff over washed out red clay footpaths and probably through floodwaters, so I am hoping to avoid that.

Also, it appears that I will get a flooding house, at least during the rainy season - May, June, July, not August, then again September and October - so I guess that will be an adventure in progress for me to write home about. Other than the foot of water in my bedroom, my house is supposed to be nice. Chris told me that it has its own yard - concession is the term here for a house within a walled yard, or compound - and will have three bedrooms, two shower-rooms, several living rooms, electricity, but no running water yet. One out of two public services isn't bad though, and apparently by using the small child method, I can have water provided every day rather cheaply. (Just a side note - after my illness, I decided to switch over to the local water, figuring it couldn't be any worse than what I already had happen to me - no problems so far, and when I go to houses with refrigerators, I can drink the cold water!)

Well anyway, this is the end of week 5 - at the end of week 6 we meet our direct supervisors, and all of week 7 will be spend at post, so then I might have even more excited gushing for you.

Chris - the CRS guy - has had some crazy experiences. He got like an English and Social Studies degree, and was sent out to Ghana to teach dry-land agriculture in some country school. (parts of this story censored) Then he was transferred to a different post and taught English for the rest of his service.

More recently, Chris's last three positions with CRS were Burundi, Ruwanda, and then ex-Zaire. He said that in Zaire he was liberated twice from the Mobutu regime. [parts of this story censored] So after all this, CRS decided to give Chris a nice low-stress post in Benin as a break - not many refugees, more actual development work, and no threat of war (let us all knock on wood for my sake).

Anyway, that was the big story of this letter. Health is much better, went to the beach again (surprise, surprise) and other than that have been handling things well. Look for the next update pretty soon.


#6 in the Series


Hey everybody,

Well, a whole lot of very entertaining things have happened since last time. I guess I said that last time too, and then just wrote about one of them, so this time I will try to live up to the expectations.

First, despite my having switched over to local water, my health is still doing fine. I hope everyone there is fine too. - I have started getting a few letters, which seem to take anywhere from one to three weeks, so I am getting some reassurance about you all.

One big thing I did was go to another town for the Peace Corps Halloween party (or at least one of them). We went to Abomey, about 4 hours north of Come, which was the capital of the empire of the Fon peoples called Dan-Homey, after which the country was originally named.

There is a royal palace there where there still lives the Fon king (now pretty much a figurehead, but still big in terms of traditional religions). The French had to burn down a lot of the castle in their effort to colonize the place, because Dan-Homey was fairly powerful and put up a good fight for a while. However, the castle is now being restored for tourism purposes, but has a long way to go. We didn't go to meet the king, because that takes a lot of planning, but we did swing past the palace - not too impressive by European castle standards, as it is in a traditional African style, but still cool. More like a huge concession or walled compound, with lots of single story buildings and courtyards inside.

Anyway, the town of Abomey is a good deal bigger than Come and a lot more animated - big huge market, a number of nightclubs, lots of street activity even late at night, and even a fairly wide selection of hotels and restaurants (Come has 2 hotels and 0 real restaurants). We rode up with Gregoire, our usual taxi driver for the Come-Cotonou runs, which made our trip go really quickly - first, Gregoire is a madman, and second, we didn't have to keep stopping to pick up or let off passengers (and their kids, goats, chickens, 100 pound bags of marioc). The road was great - it is not as traveled as the main coastal highway and so is still in good condition - and we passed a couple of other important regional towns, which was cool just to see more of the country. The countryside got a little more of a rolling contour as we went north, but was still the same kind of vegetation - lush grassland with some trees interspersed.

The actual party seemed fairly surreal. First of all, it was more American people than I had seen since getting here, and second, they were all in costume. I went as a kind of hippie - big surprise there - by putting on a headband, putting in my earrings, letting my hair down, and putting on a tie-dye. The best costume was a little off-color, but the second best was three guys who came with mosquito nets on their heads (they were the 3 mustiquiters). About 25 stageurs (trainees) and about 30 volunteers showed up, which was just overwhelming. I've gotten to be good friends with the volunteer from Come, so I concentrated on meeting the people that she said were cool, (unfortunately she was dead sick that night, but still managed to shepherd around her charges between trips to the pit latrine), and on talking to volunteers I had met already but hadn't gotten to talk to really.

I was really impressed with almost all of the folks I met - I only met one person that I didn't like at all, and most of the people I talked with I really liked. The smartest people are the teachers - they all teach physics or chemistry - but they have to have really good french in order to do their job, so they are all together. The rural community development and forestry/environment folks were the most typical Peace Corps people - dirty (er), in traditional clothing, living in mud huts. They seemed most in touch with the "authentic" Beninese people, or culture, whatever that means - and because of their slightly more isolated postings, seemed a lot less reliant on western things than the teachers and the SBD folks. Basically, everyone seemed pretty happy with their posts, and more or less liked the rest of the country, too - I even met one guy going into his 3rd year, and he was one of the coolest folks I met. Anyway, we all got a lot to drink and danced and stayed out really late in this hall that someone rented out. The stageurs all stayed at a hotel, since all the floor space at the 2 volunteers houses was occupied already, so we all stayed up late and hung out there, annoying the hotel staff to no end. The next day we had to return, so basically we had time for breakfast and a nap, and then headed back to Come. At any rate, since we are staying in the families in Come, we can't really go out at night, so it was fun to go and blow off some steam and see everyone in a non-work setting.

After we returned, we had lots and lots to do - there was a big seminar between the stageurs and the homologues (the folks we will work with in our various Beninese agencies), that was going down on Thursday and Friday, and we were running it - since we had to go to Cotonou Wednesday to do health class, that left just two days to get it all together.

I had two things to do, aside from my usual translation work, which requires me to always listen real close. The first was I had to do a skit about the "asset approach" - it is a way of doing development where you build on existing assets instead of starting over from scratch, and of using local assets instead of imported ones. We did two skits to show this - the bad Peace Corps Volunteer and the good one - I played the role of the bad PCV. I show up at a bread-making cooperative where they have a good business but don't do accounting and so lose money, so my suggestion is to get rid of bread and start making chocolate cakes with a big loan and imported stuff. The other guy suggests doing accounting instead. Then I was also supposed to facilitate a session about talking to your homologue and finding out who and what your organization works with, and what exactly they do.

Anyway, all this was really well planned out, but the seminar turned out to be a real bummer. The problem was that my homologue didn't show - most of the sessions were about talking to your homologue about various things - your job, your village or town, what you were going to do on the week at post, etc. - so during those times, I just sat and chatted with the other person who was in my situation. I still don't know what the story is on why that happened.

Anyway, the day after that conference was Saturday, and we were supposed to head off to the week of post live-in - with our homologue. It was decided that a Peace Corps vehicle would take me since I was just going to show up and try to find someone I had never met before to stay with for the week, and someone else I didn't know to follow around at work. The car never showed up, so I took a taxi to Cotonou, where I was told there would be a Peace Corps vehicle. Of course, that also didn't happen, so I hung out Saturday at the PC bureau in Cotonou, and stayed the night at the guy from Atlanta's aunt, who is a Peace Corps big-shot here. Air conditioning, 'pizza' for dinner and home-made pancakes for breakfast, a hot shower - it was the good life. The Peace Corps car showed up Sunday, but then the executive decision was made that I shouldn't show up to a Catholic family on Sunday, and anyway there were not any facilitators around to go with me to find the house where I should stay. I went with Tucker (the kid from Atlanta) to the American Recreation Center and watched FSU murder his team (UNC) - then he bought my lunch, per the bet - and he went back to Come (that's his post, which is why he had the weekend to screw around). I sat at the rec center and talked to volunteers who were in town soaking up the good life on their vacations, and explored Cotonou a bit, and then headed back to the bureau to sleep - not a/c, but still pretty comfy.

Anyway, Monday rolled around, and finally all was ready and I headed off to post. It is very close to Cotonou, but it is in the country and it is a village. I'll do the description and prognosis next letter, but suffice it to say that what looks like my home for the next 2 years will be just fine with me.

Anyway, I'll talk more next week, and keep those letters coming ...


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